Last updated on August 2, 2023 by Wandering our World
Alberta is one of the most beautiful parts of Canada, boasting some of the country’s most breathtaking natural sights, like towering mountains, crystal clear lakes, and dense alpine forests. It’s also home to two of Canada’s biggest cities: Calgary and Edmonton.
Both of these cities are lovely spots for a vacation, with plenty of fun things to see and do within the cities themselves and in their surrounding areas. They’re also just a few hours apart by car, so it’s not too hard to see both on the same trip.
However, due to budgetary constraints or lack of time, you might only be able to visit one of Calgary and Edmonton on your next Canadian adventure. So, which of these two Alberta cities is right for you?
Well, it’s not the easiest choice to make, due to the many similarities between these cities. They’re both super spots to shop, dine, and have a good time, with some amazing opportunities for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts in the surrounding forests and mountains.
Yet, even though they almost look like twin cities at first glance, there are some key differences that set Calgary and Edmonton apart from another. For example, Edmonton has the bigger nightlife scene and is fantastic for shopping, while Calgary is known for its fun outdoor activities and affordability.
But that’s where this guide comes into play! Below, we’ll compare these two Alberta cities in many key areas, from attractions to day trips and more!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Day Trips?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Shopping?
- Which Has The Best Food?
- Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
- Which Is Better For Couples?
- Which Is Better For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Has Better Weather?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview: Calgary vs Edmonton
Calgary: A Quick Overview
Calgary is the biggest city in the Canadian province of Alberta. It’s also the third-largest city in Canada, with a total population in excess of 1.3 million people.
Founded at the meeting point of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, Calgary sits in the southern part of Alberta, not too far from the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park
First Nations people lived on the land of Calgary for many years before the city itself was founded, in the late 19th century. It began life as a simple fort, developing into a town and then gaining city status later on.
The 20th century saw Calgary expand greatly, thanks to the booming oil industry and the discovery of oil in nearby land.
In more modern times, Calgary is well-known to people around the world as a winter sports and nature haven.
It drew attention after hosting the Winter Olympics of 1988 and has developed into a thriving city, commonly ranked as one of the best places to live, not just in Canada, but in the entire world.
Calgary isn’t the most typical tourist city and doesn’t attract huge crowds, but it’s still a very pleasant place to visit, especially for nature lovers.
Locals here love spending time outdoors, and there are many great places to hike, cycle, climb, and more, along with some interesting inner-city attractions and events, like the famous Calgary Stampede.
Edmonton: A Quick Overview
Edmonton is the capital city of the province of Alberta. With a total population of more than a million people, it takes the fifth spot in the list of Canada’s biggest cities, so it’s not quite as busy or populous as Calgary.
It’s located over 150 miles north from Calgary, built beside the North Saskatchewan River.
First Nations people like the Algonquian and Siouan lived on the land of Edmonton before the city was founded at the end of the 18th century.
It was a small and sleepy place for decades, but the arrival of the railway in 1891 helped to fuel expansion, with many immigrants arriving from Europe and Asia, giving Edmonton the multicultural vibe it retains to this day.
Now a cultural, governmental and educational center, Edmonton is also known for its many events and festivals. It’s even nicknamed “Canada’s Festival City” for all of its interesting cultural events.
It also has the unique distinction of being the northernmost city in North America with more than a million inhabitants.
Like Calgary, Edmonton is a super spot for natural adventures, with all the wonders and beauty of the North Saskatchewan River Valley.
However, it also draws in tourists for its thrilling festivals, from the Edmonton International Street Performer’s Festival to the K-Days summer exhibition. It’s also home to Canada’s biggest mall and a vibrant nightlife scene.
Which Is Best For Activities?
Calgary and Edmonton may not have the same long lists of landmarks as other major Canadian cities, like Montreal and Toronto.
However, there are still lots of fun ways to spend your time in either one of these locations, including some great museums, shopping areas, parks, and nearby natural expanses to explore.
Calgary: The Activities
If you’re heading to Calgary, downtown is the main place to be. That’s where you’ll find most of the city’s most famous attractions, shops, and eateries.
A good way to get started is by ascending the famous Calgary Tower, enjoying an extraordinary bird’s eye view of the city from over 600 feet in the air.
Back on the ground, visitors can set off to take in some of Calgary’s other top landmarks, like the Calgary Zoo, home of over 1,000 animals of more than 270 unique species, as well as the amazing Canada Olympic Park; this sporting resort area was used in the 1988 Winter Olympics but is now open to the public for skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, and more.
Speaking of outdoor activities, Calgary is one of Canada’s best cities to visit if you like spending time outside. Visitors can enjoy the city’s own green spaces, like Prince’s Island Park, or raft and fish along the Bow River.
Or, you could also take a trip out of the city to nearby Banff National Park, enjoying the jaw-dropping mountain scenery with hikes, bike rides, or winter sports.
Those who prefer history and culture can check out Calgary’s amazing Heritage Park Historical Village, offering a living, breathing, dive into the past, or learn more about Canada’s military might at the Military Museums.
And if you time your visit just right, you can also partake in the iconic Calgary Stampede, a one-of-a-kind annual rodeo event the whole family can enjoy.
Edmonton: The Activities
In terms of activities and attractions, Edmonton offers a surprisingly diverse range of options.
It has some fabulous museums, for example, like Fort Edmonton Park, which is actually the biggest living history museum in the whole of Canada, along with the fascinating Royal Alberta Museum and Art Gallery of Alberta.
Nature lovers, meanwhile, might like to check out the Edmonton Valley Zoo – with over 250 animals, it’s much smaller than Calgary Zoo, but still offers a fun family day out.
The University of Alberta Botanic Garden is another pleasant place for a stroll, and Edmonton is famed for its River Valley parks, with endless hiking trails, scenic views, picnic spots, and more.
Given Edmonton’s status as “Canada’s Festival City,” it’s also a good idea to try to time your visit to coincide with one of the city’s big cultural events.
And, no matter whether you’re into art, design, food, dance, music, sport, comedy, or something different, you can find festivals to suit your tastes in the Alberta capital.
Live music is also a regular feature in Edmonton’s lively entertainment scene, along with sporting events; Edmonton has multiple professional sports teams, like the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL and Edmonton Elks of the Canadian Football League.
Canada’s biggest mall also happens to be in Edmonton, so there are lots of ways to have a good time in this city.
Overall, both Edmonton and Calgary clearly have enough attractions and activities to fill several days or even a full week. However, there are some notable differences.
Edmonton has more museums and cultural events for travelers to enjoy, while Calgary is better-suited to outdoor activities, with its massive parks, Olympic past, and nearby natural areas.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
If you enjoy staying out after dark and hitting up the locals clubs and bars of the cities you visit, you’ll find that both Calgary and Edmonton have pretty decent nightlife cities.
These are both big cities with diverse populations, with multiple bars and evening entertainment venues to check out.
In Calgary, the main nightlife hub is the Beltline, not far from the downtown district. This vibrant area houses a long list of popular bars, nightclubs, and hangout spots where locals and visitors can mingle and have fun drinking, dancing, or enjoying music and other forms of entertainment.
Calgary is also famed for its secret speakeasies, which are definitely worth seeking out.
Over in Edmonton, the nightlife scene is a bit bigger and more spread out across various areas, streets, and neighborhoods.
The famed Whyte Avenue Strip is a great place to get started with Edmonton’s top bars and clubs. Downtown also has lots of cozy pubs, fancy lounges, wine bars, and even some casinos to gamble the night away.
Overall, both cities have pretty decent nightlife scenes, with more than enough options to keep visitors entertained. However, Edmonton takes the win with its bigger and broader range of evening hotspots.
Which Is Better For Day Trips?
If you’re interested in taking a day away from Calgary or Edmonton to see some other parts of Canada, you’ll have several options to choose from.
In fact, one of the best day trips from either of these cities is to the other one – it only takes three hours to drive from Calgary to Edmonton, so you can set off early and spend a day in whichever city you decided not to stay in.
Otherwise, one of the most popular day trips out of Calgary is to the popular ski resort of Banff and its surrounding national park, a veritable dreamland for camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities.
Other possible destinations to consider include the charming historic town of Cochrane, the lovely lakes of Moraine and Louise, and the hiking haven of Bragg Creek.
Those based in Edmonton, meanwhile, can visit a range of beautiful natural areas nearby. Elk Island National Park is a super place to start, just 30 minutes from the city.
For something a little quirkier, plan a trip to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, or set off to the historic town of Lacombe, where you can sample some fabulous farm-to-table cuisine or even feel sand beneath your feet at nearby Aspen Beach.
Overall, both cities have plenty of options for interesting and enjoyable day trips. There’s no clear winner here, as you can easily find lots of great days out, no matter which city you choose.
Which Is Best For Hiking & Nature?
Both Calgary and Edmonton are known as wonderful outdoorsy places, with lots of great opportunities to hike, spot wildlife, escape into nature, or enjoy thrilling activities like kayaking and mountain climbing.
But which one is truly the best for lovers of the great outdoors?
Well, Calgary is widely-considered to be one of Canada’s leading cities for nature fans. There are so many amazing hiking spots within the city itself, with countless acres of parks and green spaces.
Not only that, but the Rockies are just a short drive away, giving you even more options to lose yourself in incredible natural surroundings on long treks or romantic lakeside strolls.
At the same time, Edmonton certainly isn’t a bad choice for hikes and nature. It has its famous River Valley parks, which are easy to access and provide many miles of picturesque trails and lots of good wildlife watching areas.
Then, if you feel like leaving the city behind, places like Elk Island and Jasper aren’t far away at all.
Overall, it’s tough to call a winner in this category. Calgary may just have the edge, with its locals tending to be more outdoorsy people and the weather being a little milder and more fitting for outdoor activities.
However, Edmonton is still a super spot for hikes and more.
Which Is Best For Shopping?
Shopping is another super way to spend some of your time in either Calgary or Edmonton.
In Calgary, you’ll find a range of popular malls, like the CF Chinook Center and Core Shopping Mall, along with famed shopping streets, like Stephen Avenue and Fourth Street, providing all the boutiques and big brands you could hope to find.
Edmonton, meanwhile has Canada’s biggest mall, the West Edmonton Mall. There are over 800 stores in this place. It’s so big, it even has its own hotels, along with fun family attractions and lots of eateries, providing all you need for a fun family day out.
Kingsway Mall and Londonderry Mall are other options, and you can find a nice mix of big chain stores and quirky indie boutiques downtown.
Overall, both places are fine for shoppers, but Edmonton is the big winner here. The West Edmonton Mall is simply a level above anything that Calgary has to offer.
Which Has The Best Food?
Food is a big part of the fun when visiting Canadian cities, as they tend to have a really diverse array of restaurants to check out.
That’s very much the case in both Edmonton and Calgary, with both of these Alberta cities offering plenty of diverse menus to choose from, including typical Canadian classics, Asian food, American diners, European restaurants, and more.
Calgary has plenty of fine places to sit down for lunch or an evening meal, including some super pizza places, family-friendly diners, and craft bars.
Lots of the restaurants here serve food made with local ingredients, and there’s a big focus on healthy eating and high quality dishes. Calgary also has a super craft beer scene.
With Edmonton’s highly diverse population, including folk from Asia, Slavic countries, and many parts of Europe, there’s an even more diverse range of places to eat in the Alberta capital.
Visitors can choose from sushi bars and Asian fusion restaurants to classic Canadian poutine spots, Ukrainian cuisine, and so much more.
All in all, finding good food is a piece of cake in both Calgary and Edmonton, but Edmonton may have the slight edge, due to its more diverse range of restaurants.
Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
Heading to Alberta as a family? If so, you can find lots to love in both Calgary and Edmonton.
Calgary has its fabulous zoo, for example, which is a surefire hit with kids of any age. The Heritage Park museum is another top spot to visit as a family, along with various educational museums and the many parks and green spaces.
In Edmonton, one of the best places to visit as a family is actually the West Edmonton Mall, where kids can spend hours enjoying the attractions of the Galaxyland amusement park or splashing around at World Waterpark.
Many of Edmonton’s museums and galleries are also fun for kids, along with its River Valley parks, where children can look out for animals or hike and play.
Overall, both cities have plenty to keep kids and parents busy, but Edmonton has more of the typical family attractions and a slightly wider range of things to do.
However, for nature-loving families, Calgary may be the superior choice.
Which Is Better For Couples?
Couples can also have a terrific time in both Calgary and Edmonton. Both cities are pleasant places to be with a partner, with scenic surroundings, nice places to eat, some impressive hotels, and fun things to do.
Calgary can particularly appeal to couples who are looking for a relaxing and romantic experience, as well as those who enjoy nature and hiking.
There are enough attractions to keep you busy, coupled with pleasant national parks and spaces for the more adventurous couples, but the whole city generally has quite a laid-back and cozy feel to it.
Edmonton, meanwhile, is a little livelier, thanks to its diverse population and many festivals and live activities going on throughout the year.
It always feels like something exciting is happening in this city, and it’s a super spot for couples in search of unique cultural experiences, special events, museums, and galleries.
Overall, for romance and relaxation, choose Calgary. For more excitement and liveliness, opt for Edmonton.
Which Is Better For Backpackers?
If you’re planning a backpacking trip to Alberta, both Calgary and Edmonton can appeal to you. However, one city might be just a little better for the average backpacker.
Calgary has the advantage of being cheaper. It has slightly lower prices for accommodation compared to Edmonton, which may be a big factor for backpacking travelers.
It’s also got lots of great outdoor spaces and a prime location near the Rockies for those who want to spend as much time as possible in nature.
Edmonton, meanwhile, may be slightly pricier, but it has the advantage of more attractions and a more diverse selection of activities.
The many festivals and events of this city should appeal to backpackers, along with Edmonton’s great nightlife scene, making it easy to mingle with other travelers or meet the locals.
Overall, Edmonton is arguably a more engaging and fun place to go backpacking, thanks to its list of things to do, diverse culinary scene, and lively vibes.
Which Is Cheaper?
Of course, we also need to take cost into consideration. Many people have a certain budget in mind for their trips and family vacations, and if you want to get more bang for your buck, you may have a better time in Calgary, rather than Edmonton.
Prices aren’t too different between the two cities, but it’s usually easier to find a cheap place to stay in Calgary, compared to the higher accommodation rates of Edmonton.
Public transport is typically cheaper in Calgary, too, although food is often more affordable in Edmonton.
So, budget-conscious travelers should probably opt for Calgary, but you can still have a cheap trip to Edmonton, as long as you book your hotel in advance and plan out your itinerary with care.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: Alt Hotel Calgary East Village is a fantastic accommodation set in the city’s downtown area close to many of the main attractions. They cater extremely well to those with allergies too, which is a big bonus. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Situated just steps from the Bow River, Hotel Arts Kensington is a luxurious accommodation where you’re guaranteed celebrity treatment. The rooms are elegant, the location exceptional, and the on-site restaurant one of the best in the city. See photos and rates!
Budget: The Metterra Hotel may be four-star, but incredibly it can be found at a budget price point. With the gorgeous decor and great location, this hotel is well worth looking at. See photos and rates!
Luxury: The 4-star JW Marriott Edmonton ICE is renowned for its panoramic city views and great service. And the great sun terrace and swimming pool is just the icing on the cake! See photos and rates!
Which Has The Best Weather?
Calgary and Edmonton aren’t too far apart from each other, so their weather conditions aren’t all that different.
They both have warm summers, with temperatures dropping much lower in the fall and then quite cold winters.
However, given Edmonton’s more northerly location, it has lower average temperatures compared to Calgary, especially in winter and spring.
Both cities have similar amounts of precipitation, but there’s more chance of snow in Edmonton, with an average of 88 days of snow per year, compared to 65 in Calgary.
So, if you want slightly warmer and more comfortable conditions, Calgary is the better choice, but if you’re seeking snow and don’t mind the cold, Edmonton is a fine destination.
Calgary vs Edmonton: Which Is The Better Choice?
So, if you’re not sure between Calgary and Edmonton, which city is best to pick?
Well, that all depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. Each city has its advantages and will appeal to different kinds of travelers.
With that said, if we look back across this comparison, it’s clear that Edmonton is the winner in many of the big categories, like nightlife, family fun, food, and shopping. For that reason, the Alberta capital city will probably be the better choice for most people.
It offers the best of both worlds: all the fun of a lively, thriving city, coupled with nature and greenery in the valley parks.
At the same time, Calgary is still worth considering. It’s a little more laid-back and relaxed compared to Edmonton, which some say gives it a more romantic vibe.
It’s also a wonderful place for outdoor adventurers, thanks to its convenient location near some of Canada’s prettiest natural spaces.